To set the scene, this is what I think normal politics looks like:
There is a kind of dynamic equilibrium of politics under the Modern Structure. The Cathedral moves left at a controlled pace. It drags the political establishment behind it. The parties and the media drag the backward mass of the people behind them.
To elaborate on that, I believe the pace has been controlled. There has always been a niche for someone to be the most radical, and that is the driving force behind the leftward movement, but there are also a whole bunch of sensible people with power to hold on to, who want to keep the system functioning roughly as well as it is, and who want to avoid triggering outright rebellion from the “backward masses”. The mainstream at any given time is a compromise between maintaining the status quo and claiming the status benefits emitted by the leftward spiral.
This dynamic equilibrium has been in place at least since the late 19th Century. I think it’s fair to say it was interrupted, in a small and narrow way, by the Reagan-era reorienting of economic policy. I wrote about that.
When I wrote the top piece about the dynamic equilibrium, in 2013, I thought the same economic-policy readjustment was happening again. I continued:
The last 15 years, under the Bush and Obama administrations, have seen an increase in the rate of expansion of the economic activity of the Federal Government beyond the previous rate. We can think of the old rate of leftward drift as the equilibrium rate, though of course that’s oversimplifying a complex situation.
That departure from the equilibrium rate of advance produced the Tea Party, by damaging the illusion that flyover country could oppose what was happening simply by supporting the Republican side of the political class.
However, the establishment was able to see off the Tea Party. What appears to be on the cards today, with the Trump movement, is a readjustment on a wider, or at least different, front; the question of the status of white culture and in particular of mass immigration.
This was very unexpected–I saw no hint of it in 2013 when the Tea Party was the focus of right-wing dissent. The apparent explanation for it was the lack of compromise on the cultural side from the left in politics and in institutions. The left traditionally can be patient; if it hits resistance it can sit and wait for its dominance over education and culture to wear that resistance away. That has always worked in the past. But for the last three years there has been no compromise: the cultural demands of the leftist status spiral have been driven through regardless of opposition, even on almost purely symbolic questions like transgender bathrooms or Syrian refugees where there was no practical reason not to show the usual patience and achieve the usual steady progress.
This is the question I asked, then, on Twitter in July 2016:
The cause of Trump, as @FreeNortherner said, is that they boiled the frog too quickly. But what is the cause of that loss of restraint?
Candidates are: social media echo chamber, Republican party weakness, purging of right from old institutions.
Or, I suppose, just random shit happens sometimes. But while possible it’s worth considering structural causes.
I will expand on the three suggestions I made:
By the echo chamber I mean the widely discussed theory that left and right have been socially separating from each other, to the degree that they simply don’t see the same world any more. The mainstream left became oblivious to the scale and intensity of opposition to what they were doing, because they literally didn’t know anyone who thought that way, didn’t read what those people were reading or even take them seriously.
The Republican Party ran very (electorally) weak presidential candidates for two elections running; we saw a very similar extended run in Britain of the Conservative Party being weak, divided, and not having politically effective candidates, during the Blair years. If elections aren’t close, the government naturally feels it can get away with more.
The purging of institutions is a kind of echo of what I wrote about in What happened in the Sixties. If what happened in the sixties was that the left had achieved such dominance in civil service, education and media that they could win every battle, in this decade the dominance reached the stage where they could not only defeat any opposition in those arenas, but they could punish any open dissent to their position. Before the Sixties you could take the right-wing line on a matter, and you might win or might lose. From the Sixties, you would lose. From this decade, you would lose and be fired.
I put forward those three hypotheses, for further evaluation and testing. I still think they’re pretty good. The point is that something must have changed. When I referred back to the question yesterday, there were a lot of suggestions on Twitter along the lines “Leftists are bad”. Well, they are, but that doesn’t explain why after a hundred years of deliberately not triggering a powerful right-wing backlash, they suddenly did it now.
However, yesterday I came across the Slate article by John Dickerson. “Go for the Throat!“
Note the article is from January 2013; the occasion being Obama’s second Inaugural Address. So it was published before my October 2013 “Shutdown” piece where I saw the right-wing reaction to the establishment being on the narrow size-of-government issue.
In the article, John Dickerson simply proposes what has since happened as an electoral strategy. By refusing to compromise in any way with right-wing opposition, Obama could force Republican politicians to choose between either accepting utter defeat, and therefore losing all respect with conservatives, or else turning against their own defeated moderates, and allowing themselves to be painted as intransigent extremists. Some would go each way, and the result would be a split and damaged Republican party.
I dropped a few quotes on Twitter, but there’s no sense reading all this and not reading that article. It’s ridiculous to read that article and then ask, “Why did Donald Trump happen?” The whole point of the strategy Dickerson describes is to make something like Trump happen.
There are, however two questions to ask. The first is, “didn’t you consider that in triggering the production of ‘overreaction and charismatic dissenters’ from the GOP, you might get something powerful enough to win, or at least to reshape the political scene to your disadvantage?” The second is “Why is this a good idea in 2013, and not in, say, 1997? What is different?”
I’m interested in any answers to those questions, but first of all I’m interested in John Dickerson‘s answers. I’ve asked him on Twitter, but as yet not received a reply (to be fair, it’s early Monday morning in the US).